When first I knew her, I thought her an amusing scrap of girl, silly and a bit grubby from her mornings spent in the gardens. When not pottering about out of doors, she seemed always to be reading some poetic nonsense or other and loved nothing more than to pose the most disturbing questions. Still, I liked her even then and, I think, she admired me. But her father took notice and pronounced me unsuitable, effectively pruning our young friendship before it could grow into anything. I soon forgot about Miss Charlotte Lamb. Or so I convinced myself.
Years passed, and when I saw her again she was altogether changed. Not only her situation, which had changed from privileged to piteous, but also her very substance. At least it seemed so to me.
Others would look at her with much different eyes. They would see, perhaps, a fallen woman at the deepest point of humiliation. A woman to be flicked off one's sleeve like a disgusting worm. Or an insect to be tormented. Cruel, overgrown schoolchildren that many are, they seem to delight in ripping off one wing, then another, watching in morbid glee as she falls helpless to the ground.
To the gentler observer, she is a creature to be scorned at worst, ignored at best, but certainly not one to watch in hopeful anticipation. Day by day to witness her transformation amid the grime and cloying weight of her surroundings, not to wither nor shrink, but to unfurl, to become all that is sun and wind and flower and grace.
I, of course, can only watch from a safe distance—safe for us both. For me, now a married man, a physician of some note, a man of standing in town. And for her, whose reputation I am determined will suffer no more—not if it is in my power to prevent it.
Yet, as I watch her there among the milkweeds, I confess all these thoughts fade away. I think only of her.
How lovely she looks. Not abstractly beautiful, but perfectly fitted to the landscape, etched into a painting of purest golden glow above, and mad, overgrown garden below—gold, green, purple—heaven and earth. And there at the center, her still figure, looking not at me but at the distant horizon, where the sun is spilling its first fingers over the milkweed, over her milky skin, her hair, her gown.
The light moves toward me and I am stilled, speechless. A sharp barb of waiting fills my chest and I can barely breathe. If I don't move, the light will touch me, the painting encompass me. If I step away, retreat into the shadows, I will be safe, but I won't be there to see her when she finally flies away....
Dear God. Please guard my steps. And somehow bless Miss Charlotte Lamb.
That exquisite thing, the seed of milkweed,
furnished abundant playthings.
The plant was sternly exterminated in our garden,
but sallies into a neighboring field provided supplies
for fairy cradles with tiny pillows of silvery silk.
—Alice Morse Earle, Old-Time Gardens
Alas! And did my Saviour bleed,
And did my Sovereign die?
Would he devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?
The common milkweed needs no introduction. Its pretty pods are familiar to every child, who treasures them until the time comes when the place in which they are stowed away is one mass of bewildering, unmanageable fluff.
—19th century naturalist, F. Schuyler Mathews
Twenty-year-old Charlotte Lamb laid her finest gowns into the trunk, pausing to feel the silken weight of the sky blue ball gown, her favorite—a gift from dear Aunt Tilney. With one last caress, she packed it carefully atop the others. Then came her promenade dresses, evening dresses, and gayer day dresses. Next were the coordinating capes, hats, and hair ornaments. Finally the long gloves, petticoats, and the new boned corset. Definitely the corset.
Turning back to her rapidly thinning wardrobe, her hand fell upon a plain muslin in dove grey. It showed wear in the elbows and cuffs. She tossed it on the bed. Then a thought came to her and she stopped her packing and left her room, stepping quietly down the corridor to her mother's room. Looking about her and seeing no one yet awake, she pushed the door open as silently as she could. She stepped into the room and, finding the shutters closed, walked to the windows and folded them back, allowing the grey dawn to illuminate the chamber. Then she returned to the door and closed it. Leaning back against the wood panels, she closed her eyes, savoring the stillness and peace she always felt in this room. It had been too long since she'd been in here.
From somewhere in the vicarage she heard a noise, a clang, and she jumped. Though why she should fear being caught in here she had no idea. Most likely it was only Tibbets lighting the fires. Her father would probably not be awake for hours. Still, the thought of someone up and about reminded her that she needed to hurry if she wanted to depart with as little to-do as possible. She stepped purposefully to the wardrobe and opened its doors. Yes, her mother's clothes were still here. She raked her fingers through the fabric, the lace and velvet and silks, but did not find what she was looking for. Had her father or Beatrice discarded it? She pushed the gowns aside and looked at the bottom of the wardrobe, at the slippers lined up neatly in a row. Then a flash of brown caught her eye, and she reached down and pulled out a crumpled wad of clay-colored material that had fallen to the bottom of the cabinet. She shook out the simple, full-cut dress—her mother's gardening dress.
Tucking it under her arm, she ran her fingers across the books on the bedside table. She didn't dare take the Bible her mother had used, knowing it was from the vicarage library. Instead she chose the Lady's Pocket-Sized New Testament and Psalms, as it was smaller and lighter. It was a lovely edition with a canvas cover embroidered with birds and flowers worked in silk and metallic thread. It had been a gift from her mother's sister, and Charlotte didn't think her father would object to her taking it.
With one last look at her mother's things—hairbrush and combs, cameo necklace and butterfly brooch—she left the room and walked quickly back to her own. She rolled her mother's dress as tightly as she could and stuffed it into a leather valise. Then she shoved in the worn grey gown, shifts, stockings, slippers, drawers, and a pair of short stays. Into a carpetbag she placed a shawl, dressing gown, gloves, and the New Testament. Two of her most serviceable bonnets went into her bandbox. Handkerchiefs and what little money she had were secured in a reticule which would hang from her wrist.
She looked at the trunk, filled with her beautiful years, her happy vain youth, and firmly shut the lid. Pausing to secure a traveling hat over her pinned-up brown curls, she left her room with only her valise, carpetbag, reticule, and bandbox—all she could carry. She quietly made her way down the stairs and glanced at the silver tray resting on the hall table. Yesterday's letter lay there still, unanswered. Their cousin had written to tell them of her "blessed news" and how she looked forward to the "great event to come this autumn." Beatrice had curled her pretty lip and said it sickened her to read of such private matters, especially from a woman of Katherine's advanced age. Charlotte had said not a word.
Now Charlotte paused only long enough to run her fingers over Katherine's elaborate script and the smeared London Duty date stamp. She took a deep breath and walked on. She was nearly to the door when she heard her father's voice from the drawing room.
"You're off, then." It was not a question.
She turned and, through the open doors, saw him slumped in the settee by the fire. His greying hair was uncharacteristically disarrayed and he still wore his dressing gown. She felt her throat tighten. She could only nod. She wondered if he would soften at this final moment. Would he hold out some offer of assistance, some parting words of conciliation or at least regret?
In a voice rough with the early hour and disdain, he said, "My only consolation is that your mother, God rest her soul, did not live to see this day."
The pain of it lanced her, but it should not have. He had said the like before, worse even. Willing tears to remain at bay, Charlotte stepped out of the vicarage, quietly shutting the door behind her. She walked through the garden, committing it to memory. There were the neatly trimmed hedges that Buxley still coaxed into the shape her mother preferred. There, the exquisite flower beds with their cleverly mixed color palettes, graduating heights and varying textures—delphinium, astilbe, cornflower, Canterbury bells, lemon lilies—all of which Charlotte had tried to maintain in her mother's honor, at least until now. She took a long deep breath, then another, savoring the dew-heavy fragrances of sweet violets and purple pincushions. She had no intention of picking a flower to take with her, a flower that would wither before she reached her destination, but then she saw it. A vile milkweed in the border of sciatic cress, which Buxley called Billy-come-home-soon. How had she missed it before? She strode to the weed and pulled at it with her free hand, but the stalk would not give. She set her bags and box down and pulled with both hands until the whole stubborn thing was unearthed, roots and all. She would leave her mother's garden in perfect order. But for how long? Who will tend your gardens, Mother? Buxley will try, I suppose. Though he is not getting any younger. With the horses and all the heavy work falling to him, the garden suffers. And Beatrice has no use for a garden, as you well know.
On nostalgic impulse, Charlotte snapped off a cluster of small purplish flowers from the milkweed plant and held it briefly to her nose—it smelled surprisingly sweet—then slipped it into her reticule. She tossed the stalk onto the rubbish heap on her way down Church Hill. Glancing over her shoulder at the chalky white vicarage, a face in an upstairs window caught her eye. Beatrice. Her sister wore a stony expression and made no move to wave. When Beatrice turned from the window, Charlotte turned as well, wishing for a moment that she had turned away first. Two minutes later, just as she knew it would, the post wagon approached.
"Hallo there, Miss Lamb," the driver said as he halted his horses.
"Good morning, Mr. Jones."
"Care for a ride into the village?"
"Yes, thank you."
He took her bags from her and helped her up. "Off to visit your aunt again, are we?" He settled her carpetbag beside her.
She did not wish to lie any more than necessary. "I am always so happy in their company."
"And why not. Such fine people your aunt and uncle are. Never knew the better."
"You are very kind."
She clutched her carpetbag as the wagon started off again, her generous pelisse shielding her from the damp morning wind, from curious onlookers—and even from the full brunt of her father's farewell, such as it was. She would not cry—not now, not here, where villagers she knew might see her and guess she was leaving not on another holiday but rather on a much darker journey.
When the driver helped her alight at Chequers Inn, she took not the coach headed for Hertfordshire and Aunt Tilney, but rather a coach bound for London.
The black enclosed coach bumped and jostled its way to the west side of London. When the driver called his "whoa" to tired horses, Charlotte arose from her seat, clutched her belongings, and pushed her way out of the conveyance before the coachman might help her alight.
She stepped down and made haste up Oxford Street, past the stationer and paper hanger, china and glassman, and linen drapers. Walking north on busy Tottenham Court Road, she passed silversmiths, chemists, and dwelling houses that were clearly less than fashionable. Then she stepped off the cobbles and crossed the damp and narrow Gower Mews. At the alley's end, she paused between market wagons and rubbish carts to look over her shoulder, assuring herself that no one was watching. Then she slipped in through the rear door of the Old Towne Tea Shoppe and, with an apologetic nod toward the proprietress, stepped out the front door onto Gower Street, opening her black umbrella against the slight mist and any prying eyes. Head lowered, she stepped over a refuse-filled gutter, then walked crisply on. Coming upon a sign bearing the name Store Street, Charlotte checked the directions her aunt had written down for her. This was it.
Charlotte glanced up and immediately saw an old manor house looming against a border of shadow and trees. It was a grey hulk of a building with two dark wings at right angles to each other, a boxy garret at their apex, standing guard over a formidable, arched door below. Perhaps a great house a hundred years ago, the structure looked sound but bleak—mottled stone, severe lines, the absence of adornment save a hedgerow lining the edge of a mossy stone walkway. She saw no sign, no plaque naming the manor, and somehow that made her all the more sure she was in the right place.
It was only then that she allowed the tears to come. Here, the street behind her streaming with people who knew her not and cared less, she felt the sting of her father's rejection and the loss of her home. But she could not agree with his assessment. He might be glad that her mother was not here to witness this day, but Charlotte was not.
She thought of her dear mother, the well-loved Lillian Lamb, who had brought warmth and moderation, cheer and steady calm to the vicarage, and especially to Reverend Gareth Lamb himself.
Charlotte hoped her memories of her mother, gone these five years, would not fade in this absence from all that was familiar—her mother's room, her portrait, the far-off look in Father's eyes that meant he was thinking of her. His parting words echoed again through Charlotte's mind, and she flinched—envisioning the disappointment that would certainly have clouded her mother's face—but yet she wished her mother were here with her, walking this rutted path, consoling her as she always had that all would work out in the end.
I wish I had your faith, Mother. I wish I were half the fine lady you were—or half as proper a clergyman's daughter. Would you have forgiven me, even if Father will not?
As Charlotte drew closer to the looming grey edifice that was to become her temporary home, she could not help but notice the secretive shuttered windows of the ground floor.
Then she noticed the milkweeds.
No formal gardens here, or if there once were, they had long since given way to islands of tall grasses and unchecked patches of milkweeds running the length of the wall facing Charlotte.
Her father would be horrified, and even her mother would not have approved of the tangled mess. Charlotte sighed. She supposed that for the women within these grey walls, the gardens outside were the least of their problems. And the same is true of me.
But milkweeds? What a bane they were to gardeners, their stubborn roots sending out crafty runners, the offspring only slightly easier to pull than the mother plant herself. And they spread not only by runners, but by their prolific seeds that filled the air every autumn. Apparently that was what had happened here—milkweed had been introduced and, left unchecked, had taken over most of the lawn.
Couldn't they at least hire some boy with a scythe to come and cut the pests down? Charlotte wondered. Milkweeds were pretty enough when the flowers bloomed, but when the grey-green pods aged to a dull silver, the reedy stalks held little aesthetic value at all.
Perhaps that solicitor friend of Uncle's had given false information about this place. Or Aunt Tilney had gotten it wrong somehow. Her aunt had confided in hushed tones that this place was of better quality and more discreet than others like it. Charlotte gathered their London solicitor had procured the recommendation for her. Her father knew nothing of the arrangements, other than to exact Charlotte's promise of secrecy and anonymity for as long as possible. Otherwise he seemed to care little of where Charlotte was to go or how she was to provide for herself. It was clear he could barely wait to get her out of his sight.
Charlotte wondered if her mother would recognize the man she had been married to for so many years. Not that Gareth Lamb had changed so much physically, except to grow a bit grey in his sideburns and a bit paunchier around the middle, but his demeanor was markedly changed. He had been stern—self-righteous even—before this happened, and now was all the more. The whole of his concern revolved around two points: how such a thing would likely ruin his career and how it would ruin Bea's chance at a suitable marriage.
I am dreadfully sorry for it. I am. I suppose Father's anger is right and just. But it does not feel like it. If only you were here to soften him. To accompany me.
But her mother was dead. So Charlotte walked alone.
* * *
A single knock brought to the door a thin, plain-faced woman a few years Charlotte's senior who quickly led her from the entry hall, through a large dining room, and into a small study with the words, "The matron shall be in directly." And, indeed, not two minutes later, a severe but attractive woman in her forties wearing a dark dress and tightly bound hair walked in, her officious air proclaiming her title. The woman's stern appearance brought Charlotte some disquiet, but when she settled her gaze on Charlotte, there was grim kindness in her expression.
"I am Mrs. Moorling, matron of the Manor Home. May I be of assistance?"
Charlotte arose on shaky legs and pressed a letter from the London solicitor and a bank note into the woman's hand. This was her only reply.
Mrs. Moorling slipped the money into her desk drawer without comment or expression, then glanced briefly at the letter the solicitor had written at her uncle's request. "I see. I'm afraid we haven't a private room available at the moment, but you shall have one as soon as possible. In the meantime, you will need to share."
"Your name is—" the woman scanned the letter—"Miss ... Smith?"
"Yes, Smith. Charlotte Smith."
Mrs. Moorling paused only a moment before continuing, again with no change in her expression, though Charlotte had the distinct impression the woman knew she was lying about her name. "Before I can admit you, there are a few questions I need to ask."
"Is this your first occasion availing yourself upon such an institution?"
"Yes, of course."
"Not 'of course,' Miss Smith. There are many who do not learn from experience. I must tell you that the Manor Home for Unwed Mothers is a place for deserving unmarried women with their first child. Our goal is to rehabilitate our patients for a morally upright life."
Charlotte looked down, feeling the heat of embarrassment snake up her neck and pulse in her ears. She heard the sound of paper rustling and knew the matron was again reading the letter.
"This letter attests to your character and background, though I haven't the time to verify it at the moment."
"Mrs. Moorling. I assure you. I have never been in such a predicament before ... never conceived myself in such a predicament."
Poor choice of words, Charlotte thought grimly.
She forced herself to meet the older woman's eyes. Mrs. Moorling looked directly at her for a moment, then nodded.
"Gibbs will find a place for you to sleep."
* * *
Gibbs, the plain, painfully thin young woman, led her back through the entry hall and to the right, to the street-facing wing of the L-shaped building. Hurrying to keep up, Charlotte followed her through the long corridor to a door midway down its length. Charlotte looked into the dim room—once a portion of a fine drawing room, perhaps—with a high ceiling and broad hearth. The bedchamber held only one narrow bed, the width less than Charlotte's height. A small table with a brass candlestick sat on either side of the bed, and one chair stood against the nearest wall. Three simple wooden chests lined the opposite wall, no doubt used to store the belongings of the room's temporary lodgers.
"You'll be sharing with Mae and Becky. Both slight girls—you're a fortunate one. They must be off visiting in one of the other rooms. They'll be in by and by. We have a water closet below stairs. But there's usually a wait for it. Chamber pots under the bed for late-night emergencies. We know how you lying-in girls get toward the end. You're responsible for emptying your own, at least until your ninth month or so. Our physicians believe activity is healthy. All the girls have duties, long as you're able. You'll get your assignment at breakfast tomorrow. Eight o'clock. Any questions?"
Charlotte's mind was whirling with them, but she only shook her head.
"Good night, then." Gibbs let herself from the room.
Lady of Milkweed Manor by Julie Klassen
Copyright © 2008; ISBN 9780764204791
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.